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Leadership lessons: How to navigate uncertainty and build a strong team culture

There are a lot of challenging moments in leadership, but nothing has tested leaders more than the current climate. It’s been hard on our personal lives, our work lives and the lives of our team members. And while we may not have been prepared to take on this challenge, we’re all looking for new ways to keep our teams productive and engaged in this new world. 

We had a Zoom Q&A with three world-class engineering leaders to hear how they’re keeping their teams focused while navigating uncertainty. Edwige Robinson, an expert technologist, Women in Tech advocate and VP of Mobile Engineering Services at Comcast NBC Universal; Patrick Kua, founder of Tech Lead Academy and former CTO and Chief Scientist at N26; and David Adsit, CTO of Emmersion remind us to trust our instincts, be flexible and connect with our teams—lessons valuable for today and not to be forgotten when the world starts to feel a little more familiar. Below you’ll find some of our favorite moments from our conversation with these three powerful leaders.

Edwige Robinson

Edwige Robinson

Patrick Kua

Patrick Kua

David Adsit

David Adsit

As a leader, how do you create a culture that enables people to feel psychologically safe in times of crisis?

Edwige: You need to build trust with the team by mentoring the team, having those one-on-ones with them, and working with them very closely—especially when the going gets tough and when they make mistakes, so that they know that it's okay for them to make mistakes. In order to build that culture, you have to invest so much before. You have to do so much work before you can even establish the culture so that when the time comes, I can keep my team motivated.

Basically, you have to put money in the bank before you can withdraw, right? You can put a lot of money in your team bank so that when the going gets tough, and when you want to keep them motivated, you can go and withdraw the money that you put in. To keep the team motivated relies on the trust that I built with them day in and day out. I work with everybody in the team. I know their birthday. I know who has kids, who has a family member. In this time right now that we pivot to remote working, not everybody is having a similar home experience. A lot of people are dealing with domestic violence. A lot of people are dealing with taking care of family members that are sick. By meeting the team where they are, in spite of everything going on, it allows you to develop the trust and also allows them to keep motivated because they know that they have a leader that cares. 

Patrick: With culture, one of the metaphors I use is gardening. You have seeds or plants. You can't force them to grow in the way that you want. You have to keep the soil fertilized. You have to provide the nutrition and enough sunlight and enough water—but not too much of either of those things. The exciting thing about being a leader is asking yourself what sort of garden, or what sort of culture, are you trying to cultivate? It's one of those things where it's really coming down to the things that you encourage or discourage, or you allow.

I think that third category is really interesting because I've seen a lot of leaders who fail to address, perhaps, behavior that is maybe not so helpful, but implicitly they are allowing that behavior as well. That becomes part of that standing culture. I think about the metaphor of the weeding. You have to think about those undesirable behaviors or give a channel for that so that you can put them into the right place. 

David: One of the things my leadership team has gone through recently is discussing the book Radical Candor and how feedback needs to be given in the moment, and how it can be used to correct and direct. We have a few different things that we do to that end. One of them is we have a peer-to-peer feedback system in our company where you can recognize someone for doing something that is aligned with one of our company values. By doing that, it then gets published to the Slack channel for the whole company and everybody gets to see “so and so did this” and I think that's aligned with our company value in this way. You get a bit of that individual treatment, that individual recognition, but it's coming from a peer, not necessarily from a leader. Which is interesting in that it also reveals to the leadership group a bit about how people are interpreting our company values, which is another opportunity to go back and feed that culture.

The uncertainty brought on by recent global events has changed business projections and goals for businesses everywhere. How have you changed your strategies and approaches with your team?

David: One thing for us has been more of a reshuffling of priority based on our changing marketplace. We interact a lot with our customers on a regular basis. There have been items that have been on the list for "not yet,” but those items have become very urgent for some of our customers, or a large portion of our customers, so we've accelerated some of those things, which means deferring other things that we had considered higher priority. You really do have a limit to the number of things you can do at any given time. If you are taking on something else, that means one of the things that you were doing has to get taken off the list and put to the back or put somewhere. It's just not going to receive active work.

Edwige: We all know that with COVID-19 everything switched overnight from retail stores in physical locations to remote. I always tell my team a change, whether it's welcome or not welcome, is a signal to adapt. It's a signal to pivot. Subsequently, with Coronavirus and everything else, we know that we have to pivot our strategy to be more digital. We know that we need to make accessibility easy for customers online, easy for them to make the payment online. Everything that we were doing at the store, we need to provide the same capability remotely to most of our agents and most of our customers. You have to adjust your road map. You have to adjust your priority. You can't just keep going. Everybody knows what happened to Blockbuster. They didn't want to pivot and now they're no longer here. Everybody knows what happened to Circuit City. They didn't want to pivot, and God knows what happened to them. Any change, to me, is basically a signal that we need to adapt and change. You need to be able to revisit your road map and figure out what are the current needs of the market and adjust in order to meet the need.

Patrick: One of the hard things about something like COVID-19 at the moment is it’s tremendous amounts of change. Not just change that's happening in the industry but change to everything. One of the key things I think about as a leader is taking care of the team and making sure that they're safe. I think this is the hard thing. Lives, personal lives, are blurring together with work lives. I've read reports about people being more productive, but also the signs that people can't disengage from work because they can't leave an office. That's potentially the consequence for burnout in the future.

This is the hard thing of trying to make sure that you as a leader are taking care of your team, making sure that they're set up, things are accessible, that they have all the things they need to be successful. At the same time, working with your organization to refocus on what are the most important things, which is what leaders should be focusing on anyway.

How do you retain the strong team bond you had in office in a remote environment?

Edwige: It's very important to remember you cannot replace 100% of the human connection that we have. We are social beings. We are made to be connected and to touch each other and be together. The best we can do in a virtual environment is try to create some of those moments we miss with virtual coffee hours or virtual water cooler chats.

It would be unkind to ourselves to say we can 100% replace the connectivity and connection that we had at the office. I think that would not be attainable, but we can do our very best with, as I just mentioned, the water cooler and all that stuff to continue to stay connected. Everybody keeps forgetting about this: we still have phones. You can still call people on a cell phone and talk to them. You don't have to talk to people only through WebEx and Zoom. You will be surprised by the amount of connectivity you can have by somebody hearing your voice.

Patrick: Focus on what you can do to connect virtually. How can people learn about each other a bit more, in a way that isn't necessarily related to a task that they happen to be working on? Learn about the person behind the team member. 

Some teams that I'm working with have been doing challenges where each of the team members take part in a common challenge and they share updates. It might be a baking challenge; it might be a sports challenge. One team was doing daily push-ups and then they were posting how many pushups they've been able to do throughout the day. I think sharing common experiences, and facilitating that, and creating space is important. I don't think you can force some of those things, but you can at least see which things stick. 

David: One of the things that has been part of our engineering culture has been playing board games at lunch. That has moved online and now our engineering team is hosting a once-a-week, casual gaming session online for anybody in the company who wants to participate. It's just one of the things that has been part of our culture. I think that what you need to do is look at what has disappeared from your culture as you transition to online. What were the key things that people were doing but are not doing now? Find a way to replace that. 

One of the things that we've done is, for some of the teams, we've created just an open meeting room online, on Zoom. Anybody can just drop in and just hang out there. You keep working on whatever you're working on. It's not necessarily the same as our groups that do mob programming and pair programming where they're together all the time. It's just open and you can jump in and connect with other people if you're just feeling that need to get out of your closed office space at home.

The lessons you learn today will make you a better leader tomorrow

These tips from Edwige, Patrick and David are just a few examples of how you can pivot, connect and grow with your team during this unprecedented time. You can catch our full Q&A with them here. Each day brings new hurdles to overcome, but by remembering to be flexible, patient and available to your employees, you can create a team culture that can withstand the roughest of storms.